Sunday, August 12, 2012

Cricket Grounds in Winter: the Bellerive Oval, Hobart

I recently spent a week in Hobart, Tasmania, and what a delight it was. I believe that, millennia ago, Tasmania nestled happily alongside its brother and sister, the North and South Islands of New Zealand. Then, in a Dickensian rearrangement of the geological timeline, it was snatched away from its siblings and sold into servitude under the Mr Gradgrind of continents, Australia.  It waits, in lonely exile, for the day when it is reunited with its siblings on the other side of the Tasman Sea, where its landscape, climate and equability would be at home.

Hobart spreads itself out either side of the estuary of the River Derwent, with the Bellerive Oval (I eschew its rebranded name) on the opposite side to the city centre. The ground shares the virtues of the town of which it is a part, being proportioned, intimate, open and attractive.

Though it has been nestled into the hillside since 1914, the Bellerive Oval only became the first-class venue for cricket on the island 25 years or so ago, developed so that Tasmania would have an international venue. The first ODI here was played (between New Zealand and Pakistan) in 1988. The first Test followed the next year.

Tasmania is unrepresented in national competitions in any of the winter sports – though Aussie Rules is followed passionately – so, as in Kent, the cricket team is the focus of aspirations for top-level sporting success (hush, Gillingham fans, I said top level). Cricket is also the only sport played at international level on the island, which is why the Bellerive Oval still looks like at a cricket ground.
The northern half of the ground houses is a collection of stands along with facilities for players, members, sponsors and the media. Clearly, this arrangement is not the result of a master plan, but has emerged over the years, which is how cricket grounds should develop, and how they carry their history with them. At the river end there is a large, single-storey stand that provides excellent viewing. Between these areas is a grass bank, always a welcome feature. The Bellerive Oval occupies an area no bigger than the Basin Reserve, and there are some good ideas here when a refresh of the Basin takes place.
For too long Tasmania was shunned by the Australian cricketing establishment (something else the island has in common with New Zealand); it was not allowed to participate in the Sheffield Shield until 1977.  Like Wellington’s Clarrie Grimmett, some of Tasmania’s early cricketing heroes had to decamp to the Australian mainland to further their careers. Fast bowler Ted Macdonald, who terrorised the English along with Jack Gregory in the years after the First World War, and Max Walker, the under-estimated support act to Lillee and Thomson, were two such players.

The ground’s relatively newness does not prevent it from displaying a pleasing awareness of Tasmania’s cricketing history. A roller and a pair of turnstiles (imported from Britain) from the old Tasmanian Cricket Association ground are garden features. Then there is this lawn, saluting Tasmania’s cricketing heroes.

The statue, despite its Edwardian appearance, is of David Boon, the island’s greatest cricketer, pre-Punter, obviously. You will observe that he is represented with a somewhat smaller trouser size than we remember. Presumably the cost of the extra bronze necessary for a true likeness was prohibitive.

And who’s this at the top of the list of famous players? It can’t be. But it is. Jack Simmons, of Lancashire…and Tasmania. Flat Jack spent seven winters here as captain, and during a memorable fortnight in 1979 led the side to its first trophy – the one-day Gillette Cup ­– and to their first win in a Sheffield Shield match. I found a 1988 article from The Age that suggested that Simmons was so popular in Tasmania that he could have led a successful coup d’etat. As the island contains the finest fish-and-chip shops I have encountered in the southern hemisphere, it was clearly a match made in heaven.

Brian Davison succeeded Simmons and is also commemorated. Rohan Kanhai, Khalid Ibadulla, Jack Hampshire and even the young Alan Knott also spent time here.

In recent years, Tasmania has kept the national team well supplied with talent. Aside from the obvious, there has been Boon, and Colin “Funky” Miller, best remembered for turning up to a Test match with blue hair, and the only bowler I have seen switch between fastish medium off a long run, and off spin, and back in the same over, depending on whether a right or left-hander was facing. Today, Ben Hilfenhaus has often looked the most consistent of the fast bowlers, Tim Paine contends to be Brad Haddin’s successor, and Xavier Docherty is one of the legion of spinners tried in the post-Warne era.

And, of course, there’s Ricky Ponting, who contends with Errol Flynn and Mary Donaldson, now better known as Crown Princess Mary of Denmark, as the most famous Tasmanian (on the Tasmania Top 10 website, Boon and Walker also make the list, so the competition is not hot). Though circumstances have meant that he has played little domestic cricket for the past decade or so, he has remained loyal to the island, and is now turning out for them more often If they really want a different name for the Bellerive Oval, the Ponting Oval would be the one. Unless they plan to rename Hobart after him, that is.

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